ARE DECEASED CHRISTIANS WITH THE LORD YET? THEN, WHAT DOES “THE DEAD IN CHRIST SHALL RISE FIRST” MEAN?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“I have a question about those already dead in Christ. I never learned that once saved people die they will immediately begin fellowshipping with the Lord. When I read 1 Thessalonians 4:16, it says ‘the dead in Christ shall rise first.’ The word ‘rise’ makes me think they are not with the Lord yet. If He is sitting on the right hand side of God in heaven, then the dead in Christ would not have to rise at the trump of God because they would already be there. Is there another verse I can go to help me understand this?”
Okay, thank you for the inquiry, and yes, there are other verses to clarify the passage for you. We will begin in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, but then we will go on to the companion verses: “ But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.  For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.  For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:  Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.  Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
Note verse 14: “them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” Jesus Christ is bringing with Him the deceased Christians. Their souls and spirits are in heaven right now, and when He comes to Earth at the Rapture (“our gathering together unto him;” 2 Thessalonians 2:1), to gather all members of the Church the Body of Christ, He will bring those souls and spirits with Him. He will then unite them with their new glorified, resurrected bodies. We Christians who are still physically alive, who have not yet died, we will then be physically transformed. Today, the physical bodies of deceased Christians are decaying in their graves, but these physical bodies are that which rise, which resurrect. What are “rising” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 are the physical bodies of Christians who have died.
Consider 1 Corinthians 15:47-56 for further understanding: “ The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.  As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.  Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.  Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,  In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.”
Notice this passage (verse 50) talks about the “flesh and blood” bodies that we have right now. They have to be changed, transformed, for they are biologically related to Adam, sinful and vile, and would thus taint heaven. We cannot go to heaven in these sinful bodies; that is why they are left behind and only our souls and spirits go to heaven. In Ephesians 4:30, we read about the coming “day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). We are already redeemed soul and spirit (otherwise we would be going to hell!), but our physical bodies have not yet been redeemed. Hence, we are still prone to sickness and eventually we die. Romans 8:23-25 talks about this “day of redemption,” when our physical bodies are redeemed, bought back from sin, sickness, and death: “ For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.  For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”
You should have seen the raising of the dead Christian bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:52—this is the “dead in Christ shall rise first” of 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Their corruptible (subject to decay) bodies must be made to be incorruptible (never able to decay), and our mortal (subject to death) bodies must be made immortal (never able to die). Those who are dead in Christ, their physical bodies have to come out of their tombs, just as Lazarus did, or Jesus Christ Himself did, or the various others raisings on the dead recorded in Scripture, in order for them to be redeemed. This is what the Bible means by “the dead in Christ shall rise first.” At the resurrection of the Body of Christ, their physical bodies will rise from their graves to be enhanced, in order to be reunited with their redeemed souls and redeemed spirits.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT DECEASED CHRISTIANS FELLOWSHIPPING WITH THE LORD IN HEAVEN
While some teach “soul sleep”—the idea that the souls of people sleep or become unconscious when they die—that is not Bible. The physical body is what is sleeping (does not a corpse resemble a living person who is merely sleeping?). That physical body is momentarily inactive, and the Bible says that, at the resurrection, it will rise. In comparison to eternity, the physical body is temporarily incapacitated, dead for no more than thousands of years. Those who are dead are fully aware of their surroundings, whether in heaven (the souls under the altar in heaven spoke about their enemies on Earth [Revelation 6:9-11]) or hell (the rich man was very much aware of his torment [Luke 16:22-31]). The physical body goes to sleep, yes, but the soul and spirit is still very much alive and awake.
Remember what Paul wrote in Philippians 1:23: “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.” Paul had “been with Christ” years earlier, having been stoned to death in Acts 14:19 (personally, I think 2 Corinthians 12:1-7 is descriptive of what happened to Paul when he was stoned here, and it was here that Paul went to heaven for a time before God brought him back). Paul knew that to be “with Christ” was “far better.” If Paul were not awake after death, but rather unconscious/sleeping, then is that (unaware of your surroundings) truly better than a conscious life here on Earth? Paul knew that after death, the Christian would be aware of being with Christ, being in His presence, being “with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). That is what I mean I say that Christians are “fellowshipping with Christ in heaven.” The affairs of this life pale in comparison to what they see and feel up there! If you think Christian fellowship is good here on Earth, imagine it without sin (fighting, bitterness, envy, et cetera)… and to have the Lord Jesus Christ Himself personally there, too!
When the Bible talks about the “dead in Christ rising first,” it is merely a reference to their physical bodies being taken out of their graves. The Bible says that their souls and spirits are “with the Lord,” “with Christ,” in the third heaven. It also claims that Jesus Christ, when He comes to take us home to heaven (at the event we call “the Rapture”), He will bring those souls and spirits back to Earth to unite them with their physical bodies. We Christians will all then move upward into the third heaven, to “ever be with the Lord.”
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